I.M. Venter

  • A multidisciplinary view on small group learning in the sciences

    I.M. Venter, R.J. Blignaut & L. Holtman, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa

    Research Paper

    Theme addressed: Meeting the challenge of diversity

    Scope of the study

    Three disciplines in the Faculty of Science at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) were studied during a three-month period. The principle objective was to investigate the implementation of small group learning as an innovative teaching strategy to improve learning in the sciences. Students at UWC are from very diverse backgrounds both culturally and academically. Small group learning can address the language problem by allowing students the freedom of expression in smaller groups. Furthermore students have a broader prior knowledge base to utilize when they work together. This facilitative teaching strategy is important in order to move away from an examination and assessment driven approach, which often reinforces verbatim learning. It is important to prepare learners with lifelong learning skills such as decision-making, problem solving, and teamwork. After all, the small group learning approach has as its basic assumption that meaning making is done in community with others and so enriches and enlarges people [Matthews, 1996, Venter et al, 2002, Jaques,1995].


    Soft systems methodology (SSM) was used to manage the research process [Checkland & Scholes, 1990]. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected. Data sources included: a demographic questionnaire, Matriculation profiles, comments, interviews, field notes and videotapes. A specific small group of students from each of these disciplines were observed and videotaped on two occasions whilst conducting a problem solving session.


    Students indicated that they find it difficult to verbalize their understanding of the prescribed text and understand to the terminology of the subject but that working in teams contributed to their understanding of the subject matter. Some of the challenges highlighted in this study include covering content, poor language skills, insufficient mathematic and basic computer skills as well as inadequate prerequisite knowledge. Furthermore the gender roles seemed to be entrenched: It is more often the males in the group who assumed leadership and directorship roles; the females most often assumed the role of scribe.


    From this in-depth look at small group learning across three science disciplines we would recommend small group learning as a teaching strategy in undergraduate classes. It develops communication and thinking skills and provides students with other models for learning science. Despite the concern about content coverage, we found that small group learning allowed students to be more involved in learning not only content, but also disciplinary processes. Group work was balanced by individual preparation and reading before the group met, the instructor lectured in order to summarize and used various other strategies to get the content across. It is essential that students are primed for the process of small group learning in order for learning to become student-centred, to develop respect for their peers and to understand the dynamics of group learning. The task assigned to groups should be more structured with clearly defined objectives.


    Checkland, P., & Scholes, J. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
    Jaques, D. (1995). Learning in groups. Second Edition. Kogan PageLtd.:London. 
    Matthews, R.S. (1996). Collaborative Learning: Creating Knowledge with Students. In R.J.Menges, M.Weimer and Associates (Editors). Teaching on Solid Ground: Using Scholarship to Improve Practice. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers: San Franciso, CA.
    Venter, I.M., Blignaut, R.J. & Holtman, L. (2002). The challenge of implementing small group learning to promote conceptualization in the sciences. University of the Western Cape Technical Report UWC-TRB/2002-04.